History Of DMA Design
It created some of the most innovative games of the Nineties, ranging from Lemmings to Grand Theft Auto. Darran Jones speaks to the geniuses behind DMA Design to find out more.
Should you care to, it’s possible to trace the history of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto all the way back to 1983, when a small group of friends would regularly meet up at the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club at Dundee’s Kingsway Technical College.
“I used to live around the corner from Dave Jones when I was at school and when we went to the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club he would give me a lift because he was older,” recalls Russell Kay, one of DMA Design’s original co-founders. “We both had this passion for writing code and games, which fitted well with what we wanted to do. Dave had been approached to write a Spectrum game but did not want to do it himself, so roped me in to help him. He then bought an Amiga and decided that the Spectrum was not for him, so I ended up doing the rest of the game, everything else just followed from there.”
By the time that 14-year-old Mike Dailly arrived at the computer club in 1984, Dave, Steve Hammond and Russell had already been there for a good year, where they would play the latest games and discuss their love of programming. They would regularly haunt the local arcade, which in turn inspired the creation of their first game, Menace for the Amiga 500.
“We were all shoot-’em-up fans,” laughs Mike, when we asked him what games they used to enjoy playing during those early beginnings. “We used to play games like Alien Syndrome with two or three of us all playing at once. I actually suspect we spent longer playing games at the arcade than on our own machines.”
It was during these meet-ups at the KACC that Dave, the eldest in the group, revealed that he had left Timex and had used his redundancy money to treat himself to an Amiga 1000, a godlike machine to everyone else who was still playing and programming on their ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s. While the friends would all get together to show off the latest programs they had been working on, it was always Dave and his Amiga that drew the most attention.
Time passed, college was attended and everyone began working on their own projects, some of which – Russell’s Zone Trooper and Mike’s Freek Out – would eventually get published. Dave’s Amiga project CopperCon-1, which had been inspired by his love of Konami’s shoot-’em-up Salamander, was coming along nicely during this time, and he began looking for a potential publisher. Although Hewson and Andrew Braybrook initially showed a great deal of interest in the project, they wanted it to become the official Amiga version of their hit 8-bit shooter Zynaps, but Dave wasn’t happy and looked elsewhere.
That elsewhere turned out to be a Liverpudlian publisher named Psygnosis, and a deal was quickly struck. With an agreement in place and a game to be finished, it was time to think of a name for the budding team of developers/friends that was quickly amassing. As Dave’s original choice of Acme was already taken, and he didn’t like proposals like Alias Smith And Jones and Visual Voyage, everyone eventually settled on DMA Design, which stood for Direct Memory Access and not Doesn’t Mean Anything as Dave would jokingly tell journalists of the time.
“The forming of DMA just seemed to happen,” recalls Brian Watson, who was a university pal of Dave’s and was originally hired to do Atari ST conversions of Menace and Lemmings. “It just made sense with the progression that Dave was making. He had a game, he had people to work with (who didn’t need the income as a primary source of finance), it was pretty much obvious that this would eventually happen. The level of risk involved in starting up a small development company, at that time, was very low; much different to how it
Mike Dailly recalls DMA’s founding with equally fond memories. “I had just been thrown out of college and didn’t know what I was going be doing, and then all of a sudden I get handed my dream job!” he remembers. “My mother thought I was crazy and wasting my time since it was a bedroom industry at that time, but I just didn’t care, I was a real developer and was even getting paid.”
While it lacked the innovative level and weapon design that so many Japanese shoot-’em-ups at the time possessed, Menace (which at one stage was called Draconia) nevertheless gained decent, if not stellar, reviews from most of the gaming press of the time. And, more importantly, gave Dave the collateral to properly set up DMA.
“One thing that Dave always tried to do was to not borrow money from people as the company grew,” recalls Brian. “Menace took care of things originally, and then for a good deal of time after we got our new offices we still didn’t need to borrow (thanks to Lemmings). I’m not sure what happened later on, but the way it progressed at the time seemed like a very safe way to go.”
The early days, as they are for any newly set-up business were difficult, and the team found itself torn between porting Psyclapse’s Ballistix to various home systems and working on their second original game, another shooter, this time called Blood Money. Despite the difficulties involved for such a fledgling team of developers, Gary Timmons, who joined shortly after work was finishing on Blood Money, loved those early days.
“I just really enjoyed the atmosphere there,” he recalls. “There was this fantastic ‘try it out and see’ attitude to project development – I think it would be hard to start up a company in the games industry today working the way we did back then – so I was glad to get the chance at the time. Doing original products was also refreshing.”
While both Menace and Blood Money were perfectly competent blasters, it wasn’t until 1991 and the release of a certain game called Lemmings that DMA Design was finally catapulted into the big time. Menace had sold a grand total of 20,000 units during its life span for the Amiga, while Blood Money had achieved 40,000 units. Both impressive figures, particularly when you consider how rife piracy was on the Amiga during those days. Lemmings, on the other hand, managed to sell 55,000 units on its first day of sale. DMA Design had arrived and Psygnosis was eager to cash in on the success of its new gaming phenomenon.
Wildly inventive, and eventually ported to practically every popular system at the time, Lemmings proved that DMA had a knack for delivering clever game ideas and, while several sequels and add-ons inevitably followed, the Dundee-based studio continued to deliver fascinating content, although not all of it eventually made it to store shelves…
Indeed, during 1990, while Russell Kay was still working on Lemmings and Dave had decided that it wasn’t currently possible to achieve what he wanted to do on what would later become Walker, DMA Design was also working on Gore and Cutiepoo. The first game was a blood-soaked re-imagination of Golden Axe – one of Dave’s favourite games at the time – the latter, a cute platformer whose characters had been designed by
Gary. Unfortunately, the two titles faced various problems.
“The idea was basically to make Golden Axe on steroids,” explains Mike when we asked him about the exciting-sounding Gore. “It had huge characters/baddies on a three-layer parallax playfield hacking away with loads of blood everywhere. Dave worked on this after playing with an initial version of Walker (based on the walkers from Blood Money). It was progressing slowly and I even started a version of it after finishing Ballistix on the C64, but 1MB Amigas just weren’t common back then and memory was simply too tight so it was ‘temporarily shelved’. Cutiepoo, on the other hand, came about due to several Disney-styled animations of a character that Gary Timmons had created. Dave thought it was too good not to use, but there were several complications for the project, the first of which was that Gary wasn’t used to games and had done the animations in a very unfriendly 24 frames per second, and a 24-pixel walk cycle. This caused huge issues within the code, but the real problem was that Tony (the freelance coder that had been hired to write it) just didn’t make enough progress. This went on for about a year (at a time when games usually took about six to nine months to write), and so it too was ‘temporarily shelved’.”
It was also during this time that Dave decided that he wanted to try something a little different, and while he worked on and off on Gore, he looked at ways of creating an Action Replay cartridge for the Amiga. While the devices were already available on the C64, nothing had been released on Commodore’s 16-bit machine, so Dave set to work on the ‘Monster Cartridge’, as he liked to call it. Sadly, he was beaten to the punch by another developer and it never came to be.
“The Monster Cartridge made me laugh,” recalls Gary. “Poor Dave had these massive ideas and plans and put all this work into it but it never became the wonder product he had originally planned.”
Unsurprisingly, due to the massive success of Lemmings, Psygnosis pushed DMA into creating several sequels and add-ons, ranging from Oh No! More Lemmings towards the end of 1991 (the same year Lemmings had been released) to All New World Of Lemmings in 1995. While the numerous add-ons, including some quaint festive editions that saw the little critters dressed up as Santa Claus were little more than level packs, it was Lemmings 2: The Tribes that allowed the little buggers to really show off their talents. Now split into 12 different groups, the action took place over larger levels and featured multiple drop points for the Lemmings, who also had a variety of new abilities, ranging from jumping to hang-gliding to even turning into a Super Lemming. The Tribes was critically received by reviewers and was ported over to many machines, although nowhere near as many as the 1991 original.
By 1995, however, it was starting to become clear that interest in Lemmings, both from DMA and the general public, was starting to wane, with All New World Of Lemmings failing to attain the same success as its predecessors. Psygnosis still felt there was plenty of interest in the franchise, hiring other developers to work on new games and spin-offs – such as 3D Lemmings, Lemmings Paintball and The Adventures Of Lomax – often to mixed results. Even now the furry critters are starring in their own game on the PlayStation 3 (by Team 17) and while the original team no longer have any involvement with the franchise, they still hold a candle for the 1991 original.
“It was a simple, straightforward idea that was very frustrating to play but had instant gratification once you’d finally completed a level,” explains Brian. “It also boasted great replay value and hours and hours of gameplay. And if you got pissed off with it, you got to blow the little f**kers up. Very satisfying. The moment I first set eyes on the initial test demo I knew that it was going to be good.”
Russell has similar memories of the green-haired critters. “I remember taking a holiday in America just after Lemmings had been released and it was great walking into all the shops over there and seeing our game on the shelves, this little thing that we had made was everywhere… in short it felt fantastic.”
Although the first half of the Nineties saw DMA releasing a fair amount of Lemmings games, it still found time to create original ideas, with Walker – which had been around in one form or another since 1989 – appearing in 1993, despite being the original inspiration for Lemmings, along with the excellent Hired Guns and Unirally (or Uniracers as it was known Stateside), which appeared a year later.
While all three titles were superb games in their own right – Walker being an excellent blaster that saw you controlling a huge mech and taking on hordes of tiny soldiers and Hired Guns being an excellent spin on Dungeon Master that allowed up to four players to participate at the same time – it was Unirally that would give the Scottish developer its next big break.
Published by Nintendo (DMA’s first new publisher since Psygnosis), the success of Unirally led the Japanese company to ask DMA to work on its upcoming console, the Ultra 64 (or N64 as it was eventually known). The deal was that DMA would create an exclusive title for the machine, which turned out to be the wonderful (if often underrated) Body Harvest. Sadly, despite being amazingly inventive (it was effectively a more vehicle-based take on DMA’s Grand Theft Auto), numerous issues with Nintendo meant that the game faced various delays, eventually arriving three years after its original due date (it was supposed to be a launch game for Nintendo’s machine). A final blow saw Nintendo dropping the game altogether, leaving Midway to pick up the pieces.
“I wasn’t involved directly with Body Harvest, but the constant game changes could be felt throughout the company,” is Mike’s diplomatic reply about the situation. “It was also pretty draining for the folk on it, as there was just never an end is sight. Nintendo just couldn’t seem to make their mind up about what it wanted to do, or so it seemed from the trenches…”
Mike wasn’t the only one who was frustrated by Body Harvest’s slow progress. “From the outside, there seemed to be a big huge deal made about this by Nintendo,” continues Brian. “It was going to be a launch title to start with, then it slipped, then it slipped again. It was definitely one of those titles that was hyped a lot so the expectations were high and by the time it came out, no one seemed to be bothered any more. We (Iguana) even got Turok out before Body Harvest finally hit the shelves and we started that a year after I had left DMA.”
Interestingly, despite the slow progress of working on Nintendo’s new machine, it nevertheless proved to be a great piece of kit to work on, with Brian in particular having plenty of praise for it. “If you include all of the hardware [we used at DMA] during that period, my favourite still boils down to the N64. It’s an elegant piece of hardware, decently fast and very well put together. The PSone was a clusterf**k in comparison.”
While DMA was still toiling away on Body Harvest, its latest game, Grand Theft Auto, arrived in 1997 and immediately began to earn praise from journalists and notoriety from non-gamers – a trait that’s continued to hold true for the series all the way up to last year’s release of Grand Theft Auto IV. Originally released on the PC and later ported to Sony’s PlayStation, it proved to be a huge success thanks to the adult nature of the gameplay – assassinations, beating up Hare Krishnas and carjacking were all par for the course – and howls of protest were heard from newspapers like the Daily Mail who were incensed with GTA’s content, despite the fact that it carried an 18 certificate.
The biggest pull of Grand Theft Auto, however, was the sheer amount of freedom that it offered you, something it shared with Body Harvest, which was finally released a year later in 1998. While there was a mission structure in place that had you performing numerous nefarious tasks for the city bad guys, the real beauty of the game (and something still prevalent with later releases) is the freedom to pretty much do whatever you wanted.
Not since the original Lemmings had there been so much commercial and critical interest in a DMA game (we don’t know anyone who didn’t own a copy of the PlayStation version), and DMA went on to release an official sequel in 1999 (the two London add-on packs were by third parties), which offered new additions to the gameplay that ranged from carrying out missions for the city’s gangs, increased law enforcement, the ability to carry out side missions – such as working as a taxi driver – and being able to ride trains (on the PC and Dreamcast versions only).
As well as marking the arrival of the GTA franchise, 1997 also saw DMA being sold to Gremlin Interactive (previously known as Gremlin Graphics) and Dave taking up the mantle of creative director. Although Gremlin had been impressed with the technology that DMA had created, the eventual union wasn’t without its problems.
“Gremlin had been impressed with DMA because we’d been using the same graphics engine [3DMA] over several projects, including Clan Wars and Attack [both later cancelled], Wild Metal Country and the GTA 2 editor,” reveals Mike. “They wanted a collaboration, which would allow both sites to use the same technology. Both sites’ R&D teams worked very closely for a time, with several tips constantly going back and forth. Unfortunately, the head of Gremlin’s R&D had some very different views on how things should progress and we simply didn’t agree. We basically thought he was mad, and the collaboration soon broke down. Gremlin did progress with their 3D engine (it was called Mr Dog for a time at least, after the Gremlin team watched an Eddie Izzard concert one lunchtime up at DMA), and it was eventually used in Hogs Of War.”
Things were not going well, though, as Gremlin Interactive was later purchased by Infogrames (now Atari) in 1999, which was complicated further by the fact that BMG Interactive (who went on to eventually become Rockstar), who had published GTA 1 and 2 still had a deal in place with DMA, which saw Infogrames selling the Scottish developer to Take-Two (parent company of Rockstar).
The many changes, and the fact that the likes of Russell, Mike, Steve and Brian had already left the company took a visible toll on DMA’s later products, with the likes of Tanktics and Wild Metal Country lacking the polish of earlier games (even if they did have plenty of decent ideas buried deep beneath the surface). DMA became known as Rockstar North, with Dave leaving while GTA III was being completed. Needless to say, several games were lost during the period of upheaval, ranging from N64 ports of Grand Theft Auto and Wild Metal Country, a port of Unreal that was due to appear on the N64DD and the intriguing Attack!, a game Mike was particularly sad about losing.
“It was a simple concept of a single character who acted as chieftain and controlled many clansmen in a caveman environment,” recalls Mike. “The idea of small characters versus dinosaurs gave rise to many funny concepts and should have been an easy game to make work. In fact, it could have been a great little game (and one I’m tempted to do myself one day), but as was sometimes the case with simple games, people tried to do new features without making sure the core game was there and they simply made a complete mess of it.”
The demise of DMA Design does have a happy ending, however. When Dave left Rockstar North he set up a new studio in Dundee that became a subsidiary of Rage Software, then later Realtime Worlds in 2002. Many of the original creative minds of DMA Design can now be found there, including Mike and Russell. Something Russell is more than happy about. “It feels good,” he reveals. “We all know each other pretty well and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It also makes working together a complementary experience; you know when someone else can pick up the slack.”